What if the rich and powerful co-opted the afterlife like they have the world, so that dying brought just more of the same for the poor and disenfranchised? That’s the premise of The Bright River, a hip-hop-klezmerized version of an Ashkenazi “wonder tale.” In this tale, Quick the Fixer prowls the Underworld, which is a lot like the funkier parts of Oakland or West Berkeley. Quick is on the track of Calliope, an all-out North Berkeley babe who committed suicide to follow her true love, a South Berkeley homie who died in the Iraq War.
The Bright River is spoken, sung, and rapped by Tim Barsky, a traditional Jewish storyteller, beatbox flutist, and skater, who calls it “a fairytale for people who can hardly bear to believe in fairytales any more.” Barsky is backed up by the Everyday Ensemble — cellist Jess Ivry, bassist Safa Shokrai, and beatboxer Kid Beyond, aka Andrew Chaikin — in a show that is as much a hip-hop-inflected jazz performance with vocals as it is storytelling. Together they mash up hope and rage, romance and cynicism. “It’s a tough task doing theater,” Barsky says. “I want to give people a happy ending, but I don’t want to lie to them about the world we’re living in.”
The piece grew up in the local community. Barsky first performed it solo at the 1923 Teahouse, the Ashby Street home of Epic Arts, as a very personal expression of angst. “It was really raw,” says Epic Arts program director Justin Katz. “We packed them into our dining-room performance space and fit way more people than we probably should have. And had to do it again and again.” Later, Barsky hooked up with Ivry, Shokrai, and Chaikin, and further developed the piece through structured improvisation: Barsky brings pieces of the story to the group, and they create music that fits, whether as a soulful counterpoint to the story’s action, or a fugue, such as the hilarious bit where Chaikin is the doorman at a nightclub that is literally for the birds. “Music has a speaking role in this production,” Barsky says.
At the same time, Katz connected with San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theater, which workshopped the expanded show in early 2004 — and sold out the last three weeks. The show then moved to the erstwhile Transparent Theater in Berkeley in the spring. Says Katz, “Barsky’s philosophy of theater for those who think theater has nothing to offer them and our vision of what can happen to a community with the arts as a medium have a potent intersection.” Oddly enough, the Bright River flow of street lore and Jewish mysticism is not an anomaly, but part of an emerging genre-bending style. “There’s a marvelous, incredible explosion of beatbox and Jewish theater in the Bay Area that’s a very strange consonance of Jewish theater culture and beatbox culture,” Barsky says.
The Bright River plays the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, January 5-16, Wednesdays through Sundays. Weekday shows are at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., with 3 p.m. Sunday matinees. $32.50 weekends, $20.50 weeknights. Wednesdays and Thursdays are pay-what-you-can, subject to availability. Call 415-285-8080 or visit ATJT.com